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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Sentimental Art

Only a man could get sentimental over shiny metal,
multiple gun turrets, and Betty Grable's legs.
Madonna of the Chair, 1514-15, Raphael
Sweet, cute, nostalgic, lovely, pretty and worst of all, sentimental. All those words are quite positive, or at least, neutral in meaning except when associated with art, especially modern art. Actually we can pretty much completely blame Modern Art for their present day negative connotations. Up until shortly before the turn of the century (the 19th to the 20-centuries, that is) such terms indicated to Victorian eyes, art that was to be admired, especially by the wives and mothers of the era, The men had their own brand of sentimental art, though it would never have been called that. The word "erotic" comes to mind. Actually sentimental art goes back much further than the Victorian era to 18th-century French Rococo and the genre paintings of the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age. In fact, if you don't mind trampling the reputation of one of the greatest painters who ever lived, you can even lump most of Raphael's long line of Madonna and Child paintings into the definition (above, left). Few artists in history painted more sentimentality than did the young Renaissance icon.

Laurette Patten. I'll leave it up
to you to supply the title.
Bertha Warren Boyd, ppreparing
for a sentimental journey.

Blowing Bubbles,
Mabel Rollins Harris
It's not fair at all, but when we think of sentimentality in art we tend to blame such transgressions on women, motherhood, their tastes, and eventually female painters. Perhaps in more recent years, that stereotype had held some validity. The work of Laurette Patten (above, left) and Bertha Warren Boyd (above, right), both from the first third of the 20th-century, are about as cute, sweet, nostalgic, and sentimental as art gets. Mabel Rollins Harris (left) made something of a career in sentimental art, starting around 1930. Her pastel drawings appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post and on calendars produced by Brown & Bigelow. She was probably the most popular and prolific female illustrator of her time. She even produced art for pin-up calendars featuring sanitized nude images of young nymph-like girls--what you might call sentimental nudes (below).

Mabel Rollins Harris--the sentimental nude.

Barbershop Quartet, 1936, Norman Rockwell.
Of course, when we talk about Saturday Evening Post covers, the name Norman Rockwell springs to mind. What we see in Rockwell's work is as much nostalgia as sentimentality, though sometimes there is plenty of both. However in Rockwell's work, sentimentality is definitely of the male variety and, more often than not, lies under a heavy layer of subtle humor. His Barbershop Quartet, from 1936, has a heavy dose of sentimental nostalgia mixed with this subtle humor. Gradually this formula became the hallmark of Rockwell's work as his art matured. If he seems sentimental today, it's mostly the result of the passage of time. On the other hand, the work of Frederick Sands Brunner, as seen in his Knitting Lesson (below) is sentimentally nostalgic without the saving grace of Rockwell's dry humor. It dates from the late 1940s. By the same token, only a man could grow sentimental about a shiny, aluminum B-17, arrayed with prickly gun barrels, and bearing the image of a leggy Betty Grable (top). The name of the plane says it all.

The Knitting Lesson, c. 1949, Frederick Sands Brunner.
(Notice the identical mother-daughter dresses.)
The rebellious male protagonists which gave us Modern Art, are, likewise, the ones who gave sentimentality, nostalgia, cute, pretty, sweet, and lovely a bad name. Academic and Victorian tastes went too far. The artists in the years that followed backed off. In fact, they recoiled in horror at its excesses. There was no room in "Art for Art's Sake" for sentimentality. How does one become sentimental in creating art about art? It was a hard-fought battle. Sentimental art had a long, history. Yet, despite its negative P.R. and past excesses, such art remains alive and well today. In 1740, Francois Boucher painted a vast, riotous array of academic nymphs skinny-dipping in the surf for his The Triumph of Venus (below). It mostly aimed at his "sentimental" male patrons. Today, such thinly veiled eroticism is not veiled at all. Erotic art remains sentimental to a degree, but is the playground of the sensual woman. Male sentimentality leans more toward hard core porn. The sentimentality associated with the traditionally conservative content of the past, today depends much more on words than images. In the art of Marla Rae there is little room for free association or any type of mixed messaging. Her Hold My Hand (bottom, left) bears tightly defined spiritual sentiment just short of the religious. Now, we're only left to wonder about the gender of each hand.

The Triumph of Venus, 1740, Francois Boucher
Hold My Hand Forever, Marla Rae


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